Warren v. Colvin
ORDER - The court ADOPTS the recommendation in the M&R. Plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings (DE 15) is DENIED, and defendants motion for judgment on the pleadings (DE 17) is GRANTED. The clerk of court is DIRECTED to close this case. Counsel is reminded to read the order in its entirety for critical deadlines and information. Signed by District Judge Louise Wood Flanagan on 9/14/2017. (Collins, S.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
MARY D. WARREN,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the court on the parties’ cross motions for judgment on the pleadings.
(DE 15, 17). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United
States Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr., entered memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”),
wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff’s motion, grant defendant’s motion, and
affirm defendant’s decision. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the M&R, and the issues raised are
ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court adopts the M&R as its own, grants defendant’s
motion, denies plaintiff’s motion, and affirms defendant’s final decision.
On December 6, 2012, plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning July 20, 2012.1 The claims were denied
initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for hearing before an administrative law
judge (“ALJ”), who, after a November 19, 2014, hearing, denied plaintiff’s claims by decision
Plaintiff’s application for supplemental security income was denied on December 14, 2012, because her
income exceeded the threshold for eligibility and only plaintiff’s claims for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits was adjudicated by the administrative law judge.
entered February 23, 2015. Following the ALJ’s denial of her applications, plaintiff timely filed a
request for review , and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review, leaving the ALJ’s
decision as defendant’s final decision. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in this court on August 15,
2016, seeking review of defendant’s decision.
Standard of Review
The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review defendant’s final decision
denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if they are supported by
substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence [is] . . . such relevant evidence as
a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by “more than a mere scintilla of
evidence but . . . less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).
In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for defendant’s. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589.
“A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis
for the ALJ’s ruling,” including “a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why,
and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v.
Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). An ALJ’s decision must “include a narrative discussion
describing how the evidence supports each conclusion,” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th
Cir. 2016) (quoting Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)), and an ALJ “must build
an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Id. (quoting Clifford v. Apfel,
227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).
To assist it in its review of defendant’s denial of benefits, the court may “designate a
magistrate judge to conduct hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and
recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations,
and the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified
proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does
not perform a de novo review where a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do
not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate’s proposed findings and recommendations.”
Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir.1982). Absent a specific and timely filed objection,
the court reviews only for “clear error,” and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R.
Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis,
718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, “the court may accept, reject,
or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
The ALJ’s determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step
sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a
medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the
claimant’s medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the
impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform [his or her] past
relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The
burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the
Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 20, 2012. At step two,
the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild facet degenerative disc
disease; diabetes mellitus; diabetic macular edema and retinopathy; and hypertension. However,
at step three, the ALJ further determined that these impairments were not severe enough, either
individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listings in the regulations.
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period
plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work,
in that plaintiff can lift and carry or push and pull 10 pounds occasionally, stand or walk for 2 hours,
and sit for 6 hours during a routine 8-hour work day. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was
able to perform her past relevant work as a receptionist. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was
not disabled under the terms of the Social Security Act.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in determining that she was able to perform the full range
of sedentary work in that the ALJ failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis.2 An ALJ’s
residual functional capacity assessment must “identify the individual’s functional limitations or
restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including
The magistrate Judge addressed additional arguments raised by plaintiff concerning the ALJ’s credibility
analysis, to which plaintiff has not articulated specific objections. Upon careful review of the M&R and the record
generally, the court finds no clear error in the magistrate Judge’s treatment of this issue.
the functions listed in the regulations.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (quotations omitted). The Fourth
Circuit has “rejected a per se rule requiring remand when the ALJ does not perform an explicit
function-by-function analysis.” Id. However, “remand may be appropriate where an ALJ fails to
assess a claimant’s capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the
record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ’s analysis frustrate meaningful review.” Id.
Remand is not required in this instance because the ALJ discusses in her decision the
functional limitations alleged by plaintiff. In addition, although the ALJ did not perform an “explicit
function-by-function analysis,” id., the ALJ’s discussion is sufficiently detailed to enable meaningful
review. Likewise, the ALJ discusses conflicting evidence in the record as to plaintiff’s RFC,
allowing for the court to discern an “accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the ALJ’s]
conclusion.” Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189.
Plaintiff first alleges that the ALJ failed to provide a function-by-function analysis regarding
plaintiff’s extremity numbness, or manipulative limitations caused by plaintiff’s diabetes. However,
the ALJ properly considered plaintiff’s statements concerning her trouble gripping and grasping and
that because of plaintiff’s diabetes, her hands and feet feel like there are pins in them. (Tr. 20). The
ALJ also noted plaintiff’s long-term history of diabetes and again that plaintiff intermittently
complained of extremity numbness. (Id. at 21). The ALJ then turned to the medical evidence,
finding that plaintiff’s treating physician, Steven Skahill, M.D., found that plaintiff had a good range
of motion of her arms and neck with no loss or sensation or reflexes, and that an additional doctor,
Kia Sewell, M.D., found that plaintiff “demonstrated full strength and range of motion of her upper
and lower extremities” and “[a]s with previous and subsequent physical exams, her sensation was
intact.” (Id. at 21-22). The ALJ noted that although Dr. Skahill diagnosed plaintiff with carpal
tunnel syndrome after plaintiff complained of numbness in her fingers upon waking, the doctor did
so even after “physical exam results continued to show she had no deficits, decreased sensation or
weakness of her upper extremities.” (Id. at 22). Additionally, although Dr. Skahill completed three
medical source statements using check boxes to indicate manipulation limitations, the ALJ found
that “Dr. Skahill repeatedly noted in his clinic records that the [plaintiff] ambulated with a normal
gait and had intact sensation and reflexes.” (Id.). Overall, the ALJ found that “the medical evidence
of record does not fully support the degree of limitation alleged.” (Id. at 21). The ALJ’s findings
concerning plaintiff’s extremity numbness are supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ did not properly conduct a function-by-function analysis
concerning side effects from medication. The ALJ did not, but that does not in this instance
necessitate remand. Plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that an impairment is severe. Pass v.
Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). A review of the record indicates that plaintiff reported
to the Social Security Administration on May 15, 2013, that some of her medications cause
drowsiness and dizziness, (Tr. 253), and plaintiff told the ALJ at her administrative law hearing that
she felt uncomfortable driving while on pain medication, (Id. at 20). However, although plaintiff
alleged, and the ALJ addressed, that plaintiff was disabled due to herniated disc, high blood
pressure, diabetes, muscle spasms in her right arm, chronic back pain, numbness of her right side,
and right leg pain, plaintiff never claimed that she was unable to work due side effects from
medication. (Id. at 16-24, 31-47). Additionally, the record does not reflect that she ever complained
to her doctors about side effects from her medication. ( See id.). Plaintiff has not demonstrated that
side effects from medication limit her beyond the scope of the ALJ’s RFC finding, and the ALJ was
not required to perform a function-by-function analysis of limitations not supported by the record.
See Lee v. Sullivan, 945 F.2d 687, 692 (4th Cir.1991) (ALJ not required to include limitations or
restrictions in his decision that he finds are not supported by the record); Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427
F.3d 1211, 1217 (9th Cir.2005) (“Preparing a function-by-function analysis for medical conditions
or impairments that the ALJ found neither credible nor supported by the record is unnecessary.”).3
In sum, remand is not required for an explicit function-by-function analysis in this case,
where the ALJ discussed in her decision the functional limitations alleged by plaintiff and there are
no other inadequacies in the ALJ’s analysis that frustrate meaningful review. Here, unlike in
Mascio, this court is not “left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions.” Mascio, 780
F.3d at 637.
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to accord plaintiff’s treating physicians’ opinions the
appropriate weight. However, plaintiff raised the same argument in her memorandum in support
of motion for judgment on the pleadings, and the argument was fully addressed by M & R. After
thorough de novo review of the record and issues raised by these objections, the court is satisfied
that the magistrate Judge adequately addressed these issues raised by plaintiff in the M & R. (See
M & R 8-12). The analysis and conclusions in the M & R on these issues is thorough, and where
plaintiff raises no new arguments as to these issues, the court adopts the findings of the M&R as its
own regarding plaintiff’s objection to the weight given by the ALJ to plaintiff’s treating physicians’
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to perform a function-by-function analysis related to plaintiff’s
limitations in concentration due to pain. Similar to above, although plaintiff stated at her administrative law hearing
that her pain can affect her ability to concentrate, (Tr. 37), there is no evidence in the record that plaintiff indicated
to her doctors, to the Social Security Administration, or during the administrative law hearing that she had
difficulties concentrating such that prevented her from working. Additionally, the record reflects multiple instances
of her doctors finding that plaintiff had no limitations in concentration. (Id. at 55-57, 71, and 301).
Based on the foregoing, the court ADOPTS the recommendation in the M&R. Plaintiff’s
motion for judgment on the pleadings (DE 15) is DENIED, and defendant’s motion for judgment
on the pleadings (DE 17) is GRANTED. The clerk of court is DIRECTED to close this case.
SO ORDERED this the 14th day of September, 2017.
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN
United States District Judge
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